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Ethiopian Jews in Israel learn about the Passover Seder

April 18, 2011

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel

When Ethiopian immigrant Dabas Chekol, 31, sits next to his father, Gretaet, at the Seder table on the evening of April 18, it will be the first time father and son celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover together.

First, however, they had to learn about the ritual foods and prayers of the Seder, which retells the story of the ancient Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, so they attended a “model Seder” on April 14 staged at a government-run immigrant support center just outside of Jerusalem.

“We didn’t celebrate this in Ethiopia but I feel more and more [a part of] Israel,” said Dabas Chekol. “This is the story of the freedom of the Jews from Egypt. It is good to tell this story on Passover. This will be the best Passover, celebrating with my family.”

The Chekols are members of an Ethiopian community called Falash Mura, which had Jewish ancestors that were forced to convert to Christianity ― or converted out of convenience ― several generations ago. The younger Chekol immigrated to Israel alone six years ago, and his family, like thousands of Falash Mura, waited for more than a decade in special transit camps before they were allowed to enter Israel.    

In anticipation of this year’s Passover, the Jewish Agency (a government agency that aids immigrants) and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (a Chicago-based organization that promotes interfaith understanding and support for Israel) staged the “model Seder” for 84 Ethiopian immigrants.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, Jews and those with Jewish parents or grandparents, and all of their spouses, have the right to settle in Israel and obtain citizenship. But in order to be considered Jewish according to religious law, the Falash Mura must undergo a two-year conversion process.

During that period, most Falash Mura live in absorption centers run by the Jewish Agency. Last year, Israel agreed to accept some 8,000 Falash Mura whose Jewish ancestry has been traced. Gretaet Chekol, 72, arrived in Israel four months ago with his wife and his four other children.

“Our fathers would tell us stories but it would be hard to celebrate,” said the elder Chekol, noting that though the Egyptian Exodus was more difficult than his own, he too felt he had undergone an exodus leaving Ethiopia. “I am blessed to celebrate this holiday in Israel but I also feel sad because (some members of my family) are still in Ethiopia.”

Although Ethiopian Jews had their own Passover traditions, the Falash Mura are learning the customs of the Seder celebrated by Jews all over the world, noted David Molla, the director of the absorption center who immigrated from Ethiopia in 1984.

In Ethiopia, Jews would make their own matzoth, the unleavened bread eaten at Passover, he said, and during the holiday would eat only matzoth, water and salads in order to truly differentiate it from the rest of the year. “We would never eat these ‘industrially-made’ matzoth,” Molla said, grinning.

Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel have given up most of the their native Passover traditions ― which included sacrificing a sheep or goat or reading the Exodus story from the Bible rather than from a special book known as the Hagaddah ― in favor of the traditions of the mainstream Jewish Seder.

“It is part of integrating into the Jewish people. It’s important to be part of the same traditions as other Jews; we can’t do something different,” Molla said.

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